Dave’s rules for safe e-mail usage. Please feel free to copy and paste and save this for future use. Print it out and hang copies next to your users’ monitors if you want. Make a poster out of it, I don’t care.
1. Don’t execute unexpected attachments. There’s a lot of cutesy stuff going around out there. Do you know where it came from? Do you know that the person who sent it to you scanned it for viruses? Five bucks says they didn’t. Happy99.exe is a good example–it shot off nice fireworks, then proceeded to e-mail itself to people for you and replace a critical system file. How nice of it. I don’t care how funny or how cute some attachment is, I don’t run it. Period. I don’t have time to scan it for viruses, so I can’t run it safely, and I certainly don’t have time to recover from a formatted hard drive, so I delete all unexpected attachments. Usually I make time to mail the user who sent it and tell them not to send me that crap.
2. Think twice before double-clicking on attachments, expected or unexpected. Do you know what it is? If you can’t tell a GIF or a JPEG from a Word document or an executable, you have no business double-clicking on attachments. Delete whatever it is. It’s better to miss the joke than to end up with a formatted hard drive (which you don’t have time for–see #1).
3. When in doubt, ask questions. Don’t be afraid to shoot back an e-mail message asking what an unexpected piece of mail is before opening it. You think if my editor sent off an unexpected piece of mail saying O’Reilly’s cancelled my new book, I wouldn’t ask questions? Why should an unexpected attachment from him be any different?
4. Change your stationery. On one of my work computers, where I have to use Outlook (company policy–maybe that’ll change now), I changed my stationery. In addition to my name and title and contact info, I include a line that reads, “This message should have arrived without attachments. If there are attachments, DON’T OPEN THEM!” I have to remember to delete that line manually on the rare occasions when I do send attachments. But if a virus ever hits and I do inadvertently run it, at least its cargo goes out with a warning.
5. Don’t send people executable attachments. Better yet, don’t send them unarchived Word and Excel documents either. Zip them up first. They’ll transfer faster because they’re smaller when they’re zipped, and the person on the receiving end can have better peace of mind, because viruses generally don’t send out zipped copies of themselves, and infecting a zip file is much more difficult than infecting an unarchived file.
6. Avoid using attachments whenever you can. You have network drives at work? Use them. Save it to the network, then send a message telling your coworkers where to find it. Just found a hot new shareware program? Send the world a link to it, rather than the program itself. Involving fewer computers in the file transfer speeds up the transfer and lowers risks.
7. If you must view Word, Excel, and other MS Office attachments, do so with something other than Office. View Word documents in WordPad. Yes, WordPad is slow and dumb. That’s the point. It’s too dumb to let the virus do anything. Microsoft provides Excel and PowerPoint viewers. Download them and use them to view attached e-mail. Those viewers are too dumb to let viruses do anything too.
8. Fight the machine. The more you deviate from the norm (Windows 98, Outlook and the rest of MS Office, Internet Explorer), the less susceptible you are to viruses. Why do virus writers target MS Office on Windows? Well, besides it being the second-best virus toolkit in existence, it’s also extremely common. If I’m a bored loser who wants to hear about my own exploits on the news, I’m going to aim for the largest audience possible. That happens to be Windows/Office/IE. I can’t avoid MS Word, but I’ll take my computers to the pawn shop before I use Outlook and IE exclusively.
Alternative applications and OSs aren’t just trendier, they’re safer. If StarOffice or WordPerfect Office running under Linux will let you get your work done, think about it. You may be in the minority, but you’re a lot safer.